Center News

Helpful supplements?

With complementary/alternative medical therapies gaining in popularity, researchers help cancer patients weigh options to complement their care

Dec. 5, 2002
David Flood

Multiple-myeloma patient David Flood checked the safety of his herbal supplements with a nutritionist before starting cancer treatment.

Photo by Todd McNaught

In a dimly lit room in north Seattle, David Flood lies on a bench as 20 slender acupuncture needles gently prick his arms, legs, ears and forehead.

Soothing music drifts over him as the needles stimulate energy flow through his body during the hour-long session he describes as "a resting point during this long, strange hike through the mountains of my healing journey."

Flood, 40, began this journey last February when he discovered he had multiple myeloma, a cancer that causes abnormal white-blood cells to accumulate in the bones. At the time of his diagnosis, a large tumor had almost collapsed one of the vertebra in the middle of his back. Flood turned to oncologists at the center and the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance for the stem-cell transplant that could save his life.

He turned to meditation, acupuncture and naturopathic medicine to manage stress, relieve back pain and provide the spiritual well-being he needed to cope with the disease.

"Cancer and chemotherapy inflict a lot of damage to the body," he said. "I wanted to use whatever means I could to protect my body that wouldn't interfere with the treatment for my disease. Acupuncture has helped me relax, gain circulation when I have not been able to exercise, helped my immune system remain steady and has been a kind of positive goal for me as I go through the stresses of the week."

Flood is one of a growing number of cancer patients who use complementary and alternative medicine to manage symptoms and side effects associated with their illness and its treatment.

High rate of use

A recent study by Fred Hutchinson scientists indicates that more than 70 percent of adult cancer patients in western Washington use alternative therapies. Almost all reported big improvements in well-being as a result of their use (see page two). An earlier Fred Hutchinson study found that a similar percentage of pediatric cancer patients in western Washington use such therapies.

Despite widespread use of complementary and alternative medicine, scant research has been conducted on potential effects of such therapies - particularly dietary and herbal supplements - on cancer patients undergoing treatment, many of whom may have weakened immune systems.

That's why center researchers conduct studies to examine the use of complementary therapies among cancer patients, as well as test for possible harmful interactions between popular supple ments and commonly prescribed cancer medications.

This fall, the center, with the University of Washington, hosted a symposium that drew oncologists, naturopaths and cancer-prevention researchers to share their expertise. What emerges from this research will help cancer-care specialists provide patients with the best possible information to assure that their safety - and the efficacy of their cancer treatment - is not compromised.

At the Alliance, patients treated in Fred Hutchinson's bone-marrow transplantation program are urged to maintain a dialogue with health-care providers about their use of complementary therapies, particularly those that are ingested.

"We can't ignore the fact that complementary medicine is very important to the quality of life of many of our patients," said Jean Stern, nutritional-education coordinator at the Alliance. "I believe that physical activity, yoga and relaxation therapy can be very beneficial to a patient's well-being."

Dietary and herbal supplements require more careful counseling attention.

"It's likely that there are as many positive as negative effects of dietary supplements, but we don't know much about these yet," Stern said. "So we work with patients individually to provide them with the best information about what is safe and effective to use while undergoing treatment."

In 1997, nutrition experts at the center first developed guidelines for use of herbal and nutrient supplements by bone-marrow and stem-cell transplant patients, which are updated regularly. Similar guidelines for general oncology patients at the Alliance are being formulated.

Extensive questionnaire

All new patients complete an extensive questionnaire that details their dietary habits and use of medications or supplements and are offered classes in nutrition and food safety, where the emphasis is on learning to obtain proper nutrition through whole foods, which contain many more nutrients than can be obtained in a pill.

Patients such as Flood, who choose to take supplements, are encouraged to consult with a member of the nutrition team.

"I brought in everything I was taking and stacked up the bottles for the nutritionist to evaluate," he said. "She went through each one, giving me the pros and cons. I was impressed by how thoughtful and open-minded the staff was."

Among the concerns associated with herbal and dietary supplement use by cancer patients are unexpected or harmful interactions between these preparations and cancer medications. Some supplements increase or decrease the ability of certain medications to be absorbed and metabolized by the body, causing a patient to receive an inappropriate dose of a drug.

For example, St. John's wort, a popular herbal antidepressant, is known to reduce the effectiveness of certain drugs, including cyclosporine, an immunosuppressive drug used in stem-cell and solid-organ transplantation, and indinavir, used to treat HIV infection.

The Clinical Research Division's Dr. Danny Shen, who studies the pharmacology of pain, and Dr. Karen Syrjala, a biobehavioral researcher, have begun studying interactions between St. John's wort and pain killers known as opioids, including morphine and fentanyl, which are commonly prescribed for cancer patients. Their research is funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a relatively new branch of the National Institutes of Health.

Based on similarities in the metabolism of opioids and other drugs known to be compromised by St. John's wort, Shen said he believes there is a high probability that St. John's wort will interfere with the action of the analgesics he's testing. In standard pain treatment, a patient receives gradually increasing doses of opioid until the medication provides pain relief. If this patient took St. John's wort along with an opioid, then subsequently stopped treatment with St. John's wort, it is possible that the patient could be overdosed.

Interaction alerts

"I think it's our job to alert people to the possibility of drug interactions," he said. "With increasing use of herbal and dietary supplements, we have a glut of things to look out for now."

Even vitamin and mineral supplements, other than the multivitamin prescribed for transplant patients, must be carefully evaluated, Stern said.

"If patients take too much of one mineral, it can affect the absorption and availability of another mineral in the body," she said. "How the body utilizes all these compounds is not a simple process."

Stern noted that impure preparations of herbs can be contaminated with molds or other fungi, which can cause severe infections in immunocompromised patients such as those undergoing stem-cell transplants. She urges those seeking complementary care to choose naturopaths who have experience working with cancer patients and are willing to communicate with a patient's physician.

Flood regularly shares the results of blood-chemistry tests with his naturopath, and his acupuncturist encourages him to follow the advice of his oncologist. The holistic approach he has chosen - a combination of traditional medicine to attack his cancer and complementary therapies to boost his quality of life - have kept his health and spirit strong during his illness.

"Both aspects of my care have been wonderful," said Flood, a copywriter and book reviewer for The Seattle Times. "It's up to the patient to be informed and draw the best from both worlds."


Study shows more than 70 percent of cancer patients in western Washington use alternative medicine

More than 70 percent of adult cancer patients in western Washington use alternative therapies and almost all report substantial improvements in well-being as a result of using alternative medicine, according to a recent Fred Hutchinson survey.

The first population-based study of its kind to look at predictors, motivators and costs of different types of alternative-medicine use in adults with cancer, the study was led by Dr. Ruth Patterson and colleagues in the Public Health Sciences Division. Researchers at Bastyr University in Kenmore and Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, Ore., also consulted.

"This is the first study to specifically inquire about patients' attitudes regarding the effectiveness of alternative treatments," Patterson said.

Patients were considered users of alternative medicine if they received care from an alternative provider within the past year or had used at least one alternative supplement or therapy. Depending on the type of therapy, 83 percent to 97 percent of patients surveyed said they used alternative medicine for general health, and nearly all reported that use of these therapies improved their well-being.

Seventeen percent of the patients received care from an alternative provider such as a naturopathic doctor, spiritual adviser acupuncturist or massage therapist, and 20 percent used mental or energy-based therapy such as biofeedback, hypnotism, guided imagery, and crystals, chelation therapy or magnets.

The most common form of alternative treatment among those surveyed was the use of dietary supplements, taken by 65 percent of the patients, many of whom used several such products simultaneously. The investigators classified all types of individual supplements (vitamins, minerals, herbals and botanicals) as alternative, with the exception of one-a-day-type multivitamins that are accepted by mainstream medicine.

A study published last year, led by PHS investigator Dr. Marian Neuhouser, reported that nearly three-quarters of pediatric cancer patients in Western Washington use alternative therapies to treat their cancer or cope with side effects from standard medical treatments.

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center is a world leader in research to prevent, detect and treat cancer and other life-threatening diseases.